Interstellar and the Myth of the American Hero

All-American SaluteAll-American Salute. John W. Young, Apollo 16 (Photo: NASA)

Interstellar is about a farmer (played by Matthew McConaughey) who literally tries to save the world. The average-man hero is a central premise of many Hollywood films. In Armageddon (1998), a bunch of blue-collar oilmen save the planet from an asteroid. In Independence Day (1996), the planet-saver is an employee of a television cable network. And in War of the Worlds (2005), the man who saves the world is a dockworker. Americans are constantly being told that it’s Average Joes who set aside personal safety and financial interests to save the nation and the planet. But that vision is not borne out by history.

In reality, since the time of the American Revolution, the nation-saving “heroes” have always been either the very wealthy and powerful and/or career military men. George Washington, the “Father of the Country” and the hero of the Revolutionary War, was a wealthy slave-owning planter aristocrat from Virginia who spent much of his adult life in the military. Common man he was not. His slaves did all his farming: Washington was as much a farmer as the CEO of General Motors is a mechanic. The same goes for other American heroes. Stephen Decatur, of the Barbary Wars (1801-1815), was a career naval officer; Andrew Jackson and William Harrison, the “great men” of the War of 1812, were both wealthy slave-owners (Jackson’s celebrated victory at New Orleans in 1815, in fact, was largely due to federal cannons and professional soldiers, not to his volunteer militiamen); and the heroes of the Mexican War (1846-1848) were Winfield Scott, a career army officer from a slave-owning Virginia family and Zachary Taylor, also a career officer, with his own plantation in Louisiana. In the Spanish-American War (1898), Lt. Col. Theodore Roosevelt, born to wealth and privilege in Manhattan, received all the attention and acclaim. In the Philippines, it was naval legend George Dewey, and in World Wars One and Two, it was career officers John Pershing, Dwight Eisenhower, and Douglas MacArthur. General MacArthur was also the man most associated with the Korean War, and career officers also led in Vietnam, the Iraq wars, and Afghanistan.

The one glaring exception – and it’s an important exception to consider – was Ulysses Grant, a man from humble origins in Illinois who served in the Mexican War, then resigned his commission, failed at everything he tried, and then went on to save the nation in the Civil War. But even Grant’s career was due in part to the federal government: he was nominated to West Point by his member of Congress, and his re-entry into the military in 1861 was facilitated by Illinois congressman Elihu Washburne. The great hero of the nation, in Grant’s case, really was an average blue-collar American. But is Grant’s story sufficient to warrant decades of films and stories about common-man heroes?

The myth that the individual, free from government restraints, can achieve great things contains a potent political message. If neither the individual, nor the nation, need the federal government, then the government can be portrayed as a hindrance rather than a help. Andrew Jackson has long served as the icon for this anti-government ethos, and supporters of that ideology have celebrated “The Age of Jackson” as a golden era of individualism and small government. It was Jackson and his hardy frontier volunteers, they argue, who saved the nation from the evil British (not federally built cannons, not federally trained and supplied professional soldiers). “The Battle of New Orleans,” writes historian Daniel Walker Howe, “came to be regarded by Jackson’s many admirers as a victory of self-reliant individualists under charismatic leadership. It seemed a triumph of citizen-soldiers over professionals, of the common man over hierarchy, of willpower over rules.” If Americans accept this argument – and they are certainly getting that message from media and movies – then wars are won and nations are saved by individuals disconnected from the government. “That government is best that governs least,” we hear, and yet evidence does not support that argument. Our nation’s military heroes have been either exceptional men from exceptional wealth, or federally trained and federally supported career military officers. Average Joes, they were not.

In Interstellar, the Average Joe hero story hides the larger story of government activism. McConaughey’s character, who at first meeting seems to be a struggling corn farmer in the not-too-distant future, is actually a gifted engineer and government-trained astronaut. The film, however, intentionally dismisses the role of the government, never explaining McConaughey’s past federal service, and never clarifying the causes of Earth’s crisis. What did the government do (or not do) to cause the destruction of earth? Was it environmental policy? Was it climate change? Was it the destructive farming practices of agri-business? Likewise, the film’s focus on “farmer” McConaughey obscures the fact that responsibility for the success of the space mission to save humanity rests with a team of government experts supported by government funding. McConaughey is the lead actor, but his character is very much a part of a team of equals.

Interstellar tries to make a hero story out of what is really a story of the importance of government: government funding for research, government sponsored organizations like NASA, government environmental policy, and so on. Not to mention the streak of anti-intellectualism displayed by downplaying how important the other scientists were in creating these programs in the first place, as well as the scientists who initially explored other worlds (critical to the plot of the film), and those that fly with McConaughey and do just as much as he does. Sure, there’s a story here about love and a father’s ability to connect with his daughter across space and time, but the main plot is about the would-be success of massive government programs, staffed by the best minds in the field. Perhaps if the government had had this kind of power before (before what, again, is ambiguous), there would not have been a planetary crisis which, in turn, necessitated “farmer” McConaughey’s voyage to the stars.

About the Author

Michael & Whitney Landis

Michael Landis is an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University and is the author of Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis (Cornell, 2014). Whitney Landis is a commissioning editor at The History Press and has an MA in history from The George Washington University. They live with their two dogs in Granbury, Texas. They watch lots of movies.

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1 Comment

  1. I really enjoyed reading this article again after watching the film. I think you’ve nailed a major problem in a lot of save-the-world films. What struck me the most is actually how after the film, everyone in the theater debates black hole physics, yet nobody questions why future farmers forgot about crop rotation. But that’s just the environmental historian in me.

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